Gordon Clark and the Philosophy of Occasionalism

This article seeks to explain something of occasionalism, secondary causes, and Clark’s comments on the relation of the two so that his view may be better understood.

I. Occasionalism

First, we ask, “what is occasionalism?”

Occasionalism is a philosophical theory of causation. Rather than one event being the cause of another, on occasionalism God is the only efficient cause of each and every event.

II. Gordon Clark’s comments on occasionalism.

Gordon Clark explains something of occasionalism in The Biblical Doctrine of Man:

The medieval philosopher, the Moslem Al Gazali, denied physical causation and referred all events immediately to the will of God. Zwingli also seems to have suggested something similar in his emphasis on the sovereignty of God. But Malebranche goes into detail. First he attacks the confused notion of causality. Theologians use the term glibly, but they never define it. The Westminster Confession states that God’s decree establishes secondary causes, but it gives no hint as to what they are or how they operate. The term cause is of course correlative with the term effect. If there be no effect, there could have been no cause. If there is a cause, the effect results necessarily. But no such relationship is found in sensory experience. If someone says that eating good food is the cause of nourishment, a touch of seasickness will disabuse his mind. Eating good food does not necessitate nourishment. The so-called cause can occur and the alleged effect fail. Hence the soul cannot cause a bodily motion. In fact there are no causes and effects in natural phenomena. That is rather interesting, for it means that Malebranche anticipated modern science in rejecting occult qualities and the like and in defining the scientific enterprise as a description of motions. … Since no one can see the soul affecting the body, why does it seem so? Aside from the intellectual lethargy of the general public and its unquestioning acceptance of traditional ignorance, the worlds of space and mind, in the light of revelation, do have an understandable relationship. Malebranche’s explanation of this is a theory called Occasionalism. God is the sole and indefeasibly effective cause of everything throughout the universe. He speaks and it is done. God produces mental events and physical events immediately. That is to say, when one stick’s one finger with a pin and experiences a pain, it is not the pin that produced the pain. God did. – Gordon H. Clark, The Biblical Doctrine of Man, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1984, p. 90-91.

As for whether Clark held the belief or not, probably the most important passage comes from his book Lord God of Truth. It reads:

It is interesting to note that while Hume denied all miracles, there was a medieval Moslem who anticipated Hume’s arguments against causality and concluded that every event is a miracle. Since no sensation can be the cause of another sensation, every event is immediately caused by God. … “The second reply the apologete will probably give is that a Christian such as I am must acknowledge that God causes everything. Indeed, this I certainly acknowledge; but the meaning of the term cause has been drastically changed. … We now concur with the Islamic anti-aristotelian Al Gazali: God and God alone is the cause, for only God can guarantee the occurrence of Y, and indeed of X as well. Even the Westminster Divines timidly agree, for after asserting that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and that ‘no purpose of yours can be withheld from you’ (Job 42:2), they add, ‘Although … all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes…’ What they called second causes, Malebranche had called occasions. But an occasion is neither a fiat lux nor a differential equation. – Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1986, 2nd Edition 1994, 24–25, 27.

In the present article I’ll refer a number of times to this passage. After discussing some of the statements in this passage I believe the passage will make greater sense when read through again.

III. Gordon Clark retained secondary causes in his own philosophy.

When Clark said both “We now concur with the Islamic anti-aristotelian Al Gazali: God and God alone is the cause” and “What they called second causes, Malebranche had called occasions” it is evident that he wanted to relate his own view in some way to occasionalism, the philosophy both Al Gazali and Malebranche held in each some manner.

But, while Clark wanted to relate his own view in some way to occasionalism, it is evident in a number of places that Clark retained the terminology of “secondary causes” in his own philosophy.

For one, he writes in a letter to R. J. Rushdoony, June 18, 1960:

The Stoics made clear distinctions between first and secondary causes. Even mechanical determinism make such a distinction. Indeed I rather believe that there are few determinists who do not make this distinction. Popular Mohammedanism may not, but then popular Mohammedanism is hardly determinism. I believe they assert that death is fixed, but that the events leading up to it are not. However, I may be mistaken about Mohammedanism.

And he wrote in What Do Presbyterian’s Believe? (1965):

The Bible teaches that all things are certainly determined, but that God’s providence (chapter V, section ii) arranges events according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. God does not decree an auto wreck apart from its causes; caution is the usual cause of safety, and wrecks are caused by recklessness. (p. 62)

And, most explicitly of all are two quotes from Religion, Reason, and Revelation (1961):

The distinction between first and secondary causation—explicitly maintained in the Westminster Confession—has not always been appreciated, even by those who are in general agreement. John Gill, for example, who is so excellent on so much, failed to grasp the distinction between the immediate author and the ultimate cause. For this reason there are some faulty passages in his otherwise fine work. … The secondary causes in history are not eliminated by divine causality, but rather they are made certain. And the acts of these secondary causes, whether they be righteous acts or sinful acts, are to be immediately referred to the agents; and it is these agents who are responsible. (p. 239-240)

The doctrine of creation, with its implication that there is no power independent of God, does not deny but rather establishes the existence of secondary causes. To suppose otherwise is unscriptural, and to avoid the notion of causality is illogical. (p. 237)

Even in the quote from Lord God of Truth itself Clark retains the term “second causes.” There he equates Malebranche’s “occasions” in some way with “secondary causes” of the Westminster Confession.

Some (though perhaps not all) occasionalists (Abu al-Hasan al-Ash-ari, for one), it is said, have rejected secondary causes entirely. If occasionalism requires a denial of secondary causes, then clearly Clark was not an occasionalist.

IV. What are Secondary Causes?

But, perhaps we should first ask, “What are second(ary) causes?” or “What did Gordon Clark believe secondary causes to be?”

To begin to answer this question it might be helpful to first look at two particular sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is here, for one, that the traditional Presbyterian view of second causes is confessed. It reads:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is the violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. – Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III, Section I.


Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. – Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter V, Section II.

In What Do Presbyterian Believe? Clark goes point-by-point through the Confession. He comments on the material above from Chapter III saying:

The Scripture references show clearly that God controls the wills of men. … This does not mean that violence was done to the will of the creatures. It was not as if the men wanted to adopt Ahithophel’s plans and were forced to follow Hushai against their desires. Their psychological processes issued in a desire to follow Hushai’s plans. But it must be noted that God established psychological processes just as truly as he established physical processes. This ties in with the next phrase, “nor is the liberty of contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” In the case of Absalom the secondary causes were the psychological processes. The decision the men of Israel made was not made in opposition to those processes, nor even without them. God has established such processes for the purpose of accomplishing his will. He does not arrange things or control history apart from secondary causes. To mention other examples, God decreed to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt; but they had to do the walking themselves. God decreed that Solomon should build the temple; but Solomon had to collect the materials. God does not decree the end apart from the means. He decrees that the end shall be accomplished by means of the means. – Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1965, 2nd edition 2001, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, p. 37-38.

So, secondary causes are the means by which God accomplishes his decrees.

And of God’s use of “means” Clark must be said to be a strong proponent. He writes,

Does God ever accomplish his purpose without some means or other? Perhaps in two of God’s actions he uses no means. In creating the world from nothing, there were no means to use. Also in continuing to uphold in existence the universe in its entirety, there could be no means. But these two actions are not to be classified as “his ordinary providence” and so we may continue to wonder whether this [the words “without, above, and against” of Chapter V, Section III of the WCF] is a mistake in the Confession. – What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1965, 2nd edition 2001, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, p. 66.

V. Two Distinctions

Clark’s view might be better understood by considering the two elements of the statement after “What they called second causes, Malebranche had called occasions” in the Lord God of Truth passage. The statement he next makes is, “But an occasion is neither a fiat lux nor a differential equation.” What each of these—“fiat lux” and “differential equation”—are referring to must be considered. In doing so it will be clear that Clark is rejecting “continuous creationism” and “mechanical determinism” respectively.

A. “Neither a fiat lux” is opposition to “continuous creationism.”

Fiat lux is Latin for “Let there be light”—a reference, naturally, to the creation account of Genesis.

In opposing occasions or secondary causes as fiat lux Clark is denying that such are related to any new creations. That is, all things are not left to disappear from existence and simultaneously be re-created by God at each moment, in a type of “continuous creationism,” but rather creation is held together by God’s providence; as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The works of providence are his [God’s] most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all of his creatures and all their actions.”

That Clark here opposes continuous creationism is compatible with his acceptance of traducianism. In holding to traducianism—the doctrine that man’s souls are generated from the soul’s of their parents—Clark rejects a creationism of souls where new souls are created at each human’s conception. In his acceptance of traducianism, in fact, it seems Clark rejects all creation after God’s original creation of the universe. He writes,

The most important argument for traducianism is based on Genesis 2:2-3. “God ended all his work.” “In six days the Lord made Heaven and Earth … and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11. “God rested … from all his works [apo pan to ton ergon]” (Hebrews 4:4). – Gordon H. Clark, “Traducianism,” The Trinity Review, July-August, 1982.

Now, based on Clark’s comment that in God’s ordinary providence he uses means, and Clark’s rejection of fiat lux, it is clear that he holds that God works primarily through mediate causation rather than immediate causation. If occasionalism has exclusively immediate causation, then clearly Clark was not an occasionalist.

He writes,

God does not do everything—he hardly does anything—immediately. For this reason the Westminster Confession, to which Berkouwer pays insufficient attention, has a phrase about secondary causation. – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd edition 1995, p. 237.

B. “Differential equations” is opposition to mechanical determinism, and acceptance of contingency.

When Clark wrote that an occasion or secondary cause was not a differential equation, he was arguing against the view of mechanism or mechanical determinism. Evidencing this, there are a number of places in his writings where “differential equations” are mentioned in reference to that claim of mechanical determinists that everything in the universe, including man, is supposed to function according to an exact mechanical model.

Clark explains the connection between mechanism and differential equations in an entry on “miracles” he wrote for an encyclopedia:

Newtonian science was essentially the philosophy of mechanism. Mathematical equations, formulated on the basis of experimentation, were supposed to be accurate descriptions of how natural processes took place. These equations enabled scientists both to predict and to understand. As Laplace put it: Given the positions and velocities of every particle in the universe, one can calculate their positions at any future time. Lord Kelvin claimed to understand if, and only if, he could construct a mechanical model of a natural phenomenon. When these laws and others not yet discovered are universalized, that is, when every motion and process throughout the universe is said to be describable by differential equations, miracles are ruled out. Life and mind are ruled out too, unless these words are used behavioristically to designate certain sets of physical motions. – Gordon H. Clark, “Miracles,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1975.

In his lecture on “The Logos,” Clark also wrote in opposition to mechanical determinism with a reference to differential equations:

The doctrine of creation, asserting that the universe is not an everlasting mechanism, but a teleological construction of Intelligence, needs great emphasis today because it is so widely denied in the public schools. Purposeless differential equations have replaced an omnipotent and omniscient mind. – Gordon H. Clark, “The Logos,” a lecture from 1984, The Trinity Review, Sept 2008.

And in Religion, Reason, and Revelation,

The natural liberty of the will consists in a freedom from physical necessity. Choice is not determined as the planetary motions are. Physical or mechanical determinism, expressible in differential equations, is applicable only to inanimate objects; but there is a psychological determinism that is not mechanical or mathematical. The Calvinist repudiates the former but accepts the latter. Hence he may without inconsistency deny free will and yet speak of natural liberty. – Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 1961, 2nd edition 1995, p. 226.

But we need not even depart from the book Lord God of Truth, for there Clark earlier noted the view of mechanism “in which there is no chance, i.e. exceptions to the proper equations.” (p. 10) And again, “The laws of physics are differential equations that supposedly describe the motion of some object.” (p. 25) This “no chance” contrasts with the Westminster Confession of Faith which upheld the “contingency”—the impredictability to man—of second causes. In mechanism there are no contingencies, but Clark holds, with the Confession, that there are.

As for this “contingency,” Clark explains,

One would like to know the meaning of freely and contingently. What the Reformation theologians meant by these terms may be fairly well surmised from a passage in Jerome Zanchius’ book, Absolute Predestination, The Will of God, Position 11. He writes, “Position 11. In consequence of God’s immutable will and infallible foreknowledge, whatever things comes to pass, come to pass necessarily, though with respect to second causes and us men, many things are contingent, i.e., unexpected and seemingly accidental.” Thus the term contingent refers to a man’s way of looking at events, or more explicitly to man’s incomplete knowledge of how the events were caused. – What Do Presbyterians Believe?, 1965, 2nd edition 2001, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, p. 64.

VI. Causes and Teleology

Rather than a mechanical cause-effect relationship, Clark’s view of causation is teleological; having God’s ultimate purpose (or teleos) as the cause of all things. Thus, with God’s purpose being after all temporal events, the cause (perhaps surprisingly) is found to occur after the effect.

Clark briefly notes the Biblical warrant of this “teleological construction” over mechanism in a passage now quoted a second time:

The doctrine of creation, asserting that the universe is not an everlasting mechanism, but a teleological construction of Intelligence, needs great emphasis today because it is so widely denied in the public schools. Purposeless differential equations have replaced an omnipotent and omniscient mind. – Gordon H. Clark, “The Logos,” a lecture from 1984, The Trinity Review, Sept 2008.

And from Lord God of Truth he again mentions teleology over mechanism:

Finally, since all the laws of physics are false—as its history indicates—and since Scripture does not teach mechanism, but asserts that the world is governed teleologically by purposes that cannot be restrained nor understood, as Rene Descartes made clear, empiricism with its cosmological argument should be abandoned. – Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth, Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1986, 2nd Edition 1994, p. 27.

VII. Conclusion

I noted before that Clark wanted to relate his own view in some way to occasionalism. He equated Malebranche’s “occasions” with the “second causes” of the Divines of Westminster. But, with the two distinctions following that statement—that these are neither fiat lux nor differential equations—we are left with only one similarity between occasionalism and the Westminster Confession; that is, both ascribe God as the ultimate cause. God is the only efficient cause for “only God can guarantee the occurrence of Y, and indeed of X as well.” But while God is the only efficient cause, He usually uses means to bring about His ends.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has God’s activity in occasionalism to be “direct and immediate.” While concurrentism has “both God and man directly involved” it has both man and God as immediate causes. So neither occasionalism nor concurrentism are entirely adequate labels for Clark’s view. His view is that of the Westminster Confession, it is Calvinism, and so should it be labeled.



About douglasdouma

I am a husband to beautiful wife, an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church - Hanover Presbytery, and founder of Sola - Appalachian Christian Retreat (www.discoversola.com). In addition to blogging at this site I am the author of The Presbyterian Philosopher - The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark (Wipf&Stock, 2017) and compiling editor of Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark (Trinity Foundation, 2017). I have a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering (University of Michigan), a master's in business administration (Wake Forest University) and a master of divinity (Sangre de Cristo Seminary). I'm an avid hiker, having completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian trail in 2013 and the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.
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6 Responses to Gordon Clark and the Philosophy of Occasionalism

  1. John Bradshaw says:

    Thx Doug. That was a good and clear summary.

  2. LJ says:

    Thank you, Douglas, as usual your writing and analysis are very interesting and help some of us mental midgets better understand Clark!

  3. Dear Doug:

    Good post. : – )

    Gordon Clark is following the [Westminster Confession of Faith] in affirming second causes.

    Your observation that the affirmation of second causes is a denial of both occasionalism and concurrentism is a very interesting one.

    Maybe another post in the future on Clark and concurrentism?



  4. douglasdouma says:

    “It is also true that God can and sometimes does produce an historical event without human mediation as an efficient cause, as when he destroyed Sennacherib’s army by a plague.” – Gordon H. Clark, Historiography Secular and Religious, p. 203.

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